Books: The afterlife of a politician

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The Colony of Unrequited Dreams

by Wayne Johnston

Doubleday pounds 15

Is it a novel or a fictional biography or a history, and does it matter as long as the book works? If you live in Newfoundland, the colony of the title and birthplace of the author, you are likely to be interested in an imagined life of the political maverick who took the former British colony into the Canadian confederation. But for the book to succeed as a novel, it needs to capture a wider audience - one which knows nothing of Joey Smallwood, whose name at least seems tailor-made for fiction, and the political preoccupations of provincial Newfoundland.

It's a tricky business, this blurring of fact and fiction, and to be fair to the author, I was sufficiently swept up by his narrative swell not to consider the issue until I'd finished the book. Johnston is by no means the first author to incorporate real characters into a fictitious work; the list goes from Shakespeare's history plays to Gore Vidal's historical novels, Don Delillo's Libra, Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, Mussolini's internal ramblings which I, for one, found the least compelling part of Louis de Bernieres's Captain Corelli's Mandolin.

takes the hybrid further by yoking a figure from contemporary history - Smallwood only died in 1991 - to a wholly imaginary heroine (and what a fabulous invention she is) - in order to illuminate his psychology and motivation. So what? you might say. Hasn't the novelist got complete licence to gather and redistribute material as he sees fit? The problem with this approach is largely one for the Newfoundlings. A strong passage towards the beginning of the novel suggests the reason for Smallwood's first stirrings towards socialism, when as a young journalist he finds himself reporting on a sealing disaster in which 80 seamen were left to die on the ice during a three-day storm because an arrogant captain refused to take them on board. The tragedy was a real one; the crew of the S S Newfoundland, many of whom did not return, did set sail in 1916 but there were no reporters on board to witness the event, and certainly no one who went by the name of Smallwood. This displeases the sticklers who find they cannot suspend their disbelief for the convenience of a dramatic storyline. One critic complained that it was tantamount to putting Pierre Trudeau on the beaches of Normandy.

For this reader, it didn't matter a jot. It was not an episode with which I was familiar, and in terms of the novel and the development of the central character it rang absolutely true. Smallwood's response to what he has seen has an absolute emotional acuity: "My body grieved but not my mind. I felt as though someone who was sitting right beside me was crying, and though I wanted to console him, I could not." Only 100 pages in, we already believe that this is how Smallwood, the character - whose intellect and feelings never quite seem to mesh - would react to such an event.

And yet, how easily would we be drawn into a work of fiction which took as its central character, say, Harold Wilson, who died four years after the real Joey Smallwood, and who is also survived by his wife and children? Might it not feel strange to read about his unsatisfactory marriage, his solo sexual activities, his lifelong unconsummated attachment to another woman - the ease with which his political idealism is swept away by his ambition, his readiness to betray the only person he cares for if it can further his own ends? It might be a gripping read but it would be an odd sort of novel to us all the same.

starts brilliantly well, sags a bit in the middle, and manages to regain its momentum at the end. The dramatic lynchpins are a letter and a book, both of which are used as devices to draw you into the characters who surround Smallwood. As a young boy, the country's future prime minister, son of an impecunious alcoholic father and a long-suffering mother, is sent to a smart school, Bishop Feild, by a rich relation. When a letter to a newspaper editor, from a disgruntled pupil complaining about the privations of the regime, is intercepted, the finger points to Smallwood and, despite his innocence, he feels compelled to leave the school. His friend Fielding confesses to the crime, but it is not until the end of the book that we discover the real culprit.

The book is what one assumes to be a bona fide set-text - who knows, this, too, could be some sort of in-joke - D W Prowse's A History of Newfoundland. At any rate, it's a work which has diverse effects on Smallwood's father and mother, leads unwittingly to a bathetic tragedy, a religious conversion, and ultimately solves the mystery of the letter. It is also mercilessly lampooned by the marvellous Fielding whose own Condensed History of Newfoundland - an absurdly reduced and comedic counterpart - intersects the narrative of the novel.

Fielding is Smallwood's sparring partner and soul-mate and, to be frank, I could have done with more of her and rather less of him. Johnston has confessed that he is not a little in love with her himself, and it shows. He's strong on jokes and there are many hilarious episodes in the book - the whinnying, self-pitying speechifying of Smallwood's father, in his cups, and the barrage of deflating ripostes from his wife; Reeves, Smallwood's headmaster and a nasty piece of work, who, with all the chippy arrogance of the Englishman in exile, is given to such pronouncements as: "`There are no novels worth reading after Dickens,' as if, in an age of mediocrity, individual failure such as his was excusable, inevitable". But with Fielding, the humour is never directed at her expense. Rather it is through her pen, in her private journal, that we see more clearly the foibles of others, including her beloved Smallwood.

What makes Fielding - typically, she is never known by her first, girlie name, Sheilagh - irresistible? She is caustic, aloof, a committed anti social drinker, seemingly incapable of forming reciprocal relationships, but all too capable of casual ones, the mocker and scourge of all Newfoundland's politicians (Smallwood included) in her newspaper column, Field Day, and someone - on the surface - without a serious thought in her. As a schoolgirl, she is viewed as an exotic because her mother, divorced from her doctor father, lives in New York. Her eccentricities are already in place when we meet her: her arch way of speaking, her silver-topped cane, an affectation which becomes a necessity when in the years to come she contracts TB and almost dies.

But the real Fielding, as we know from her private journal which she is at such pains to keep that way, is quite a different woman; someone who masks her awkwardness in bravado, who is loyal and generous even to those who don't deserve it, and who guards an almost unbearably sad secret to herself. Fielding is Smallwood's better half and the tragedy within the novel is that only the reader, until the last few pages, knows how deeply they have cared for one another for 40 years.

It is Fielding, accompanying Smallwood as Prime Minister trying to sell Newfoundland to the rest of the world, who notes his tendency to describe everything relating to his own country, as one of the "great small" mountains, rivers, falls, newspapers, even nations, of the earth. It would be tempting to describe Johnston's novel in similar terms. But there's nothing small about , although it is a great read.